Concern for Religious Freedom or Preaching Political Messages?

Thu 1 Mar, 2012 01:36 pm
Trying to defuse the controversy, the Obama administration last month amended the rule.
That issue was discussed at the Judiciary Committee hearing last Tuesday with the witnesses (a bishop representing the Catholic church, an attorney representing plaintiffs against the mandate and an employee of a Christian public policy organization) disagreeing to the stipulation that the rule has been officially amended. They argued that despite the words spoken by the president in his press conference of February 10, no such amendment to the mandate has been posted to the National Register, nor has any representative of the Catholic church (or any other interested party) received such notice in writing. When queried, they each testified that it's their understanding from the White House statements that official finalization (which would include any amendments under consideration) will not be issued until 'after the election'.

That testimony went unchallenged by committee members in support of the mandate, perhaps due to the fact that the administration's Department of Justice has now asked that courts in two lawsuits (there are a total of 4, so far) be thrown out because finalization of the mandate as it pertains to the new contraception rule has not yet occurred.

So, as far as the witnesses opposed to the mandate are concerned, and despite what the president said in his press conference, the ruling enacted by HHS on January 20, 2012 is final until they are notified otherwise.
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Sun 4 Mar, 2012 01:48 pm
Bishops will likely file suit 'to protect our religious liberty'
(Bishop Donald Trautman, Opinion Essay, Erie Times-News, March 4, 2012)

Why are United States bishops still so skeptical about the recent accommodation that was offered concerning the new Health and Human Services mandate?

As leaders of the Catholic Church, we have a serious responsibility to be true to our religious beliefs and values, but it is much more than that. We are also Americans interested in preserving everyone's right to religious freedom as provided by our Constitution.

Some late-night comedians have tried to have fun with Bishop William Lori's testimony before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the House of Representatives. While all analogies limp to some degree, I thought his presentation of "The Parable of the Kosher Deli" was quite clever and put this issue in very clear, understandable terms.

The parable suggested the new mandate was akin to a law requiring any business serving food to serve pork, including kosher delicatessens. In the parable, Bishop Lori explained that people of all faiths were outraged by this threat to the principle of religious liberty playing out in the Orthodox Jewish community. "They knew that, if the mandate stands, they might be the next ones forced to violate their most deeply held beliefs," he said.

What about those in support of the pork mandate who said many Jews eat pork and that those who don't should just get with the times? In his testimony, Bishop Lori asked, "Does the fact that large majorities in society -- even large majorities within the protesting religious community -- reject a particular religious belief make it permissible for the government to punish that minority belief with its coercive power? In a nation committed to religious liberty and diversity," he concluded, "the answer, of course, is no."

The parable goes on to point out the outrageousness of a government bringing down sanctions on the deli if it did not give a ham sandwich to a customer who requested it. He compared the accommodation offered by the administration to allowing the deli owners to remove all pork products from their menus. To enjoy this exemption, all they needed to do was allow their meat suppliers to set up a kiosk on their premises to prepare and serve ham sandwiches -- free of charge. But here's the catch: The monthly bill the deli received from its meat supplier would, of course, include the cost of the "free" ham sandwiches.

The reason I like this analogy is it helps broaden the discussion. I cannot emphasize enough that this is not just a battle over contraception, sterilization or even abortion-inducing drugs. It is primarily a question of religious liberty. The mandate violates the rights of every person of faith and the rights of every American citizen.

There are voices, including those of some Catholics, saying that the bishops of the United States should accept the accommodation presented by the administration. But I do oppose the accommodation in its present form. While we don't yet have the full details about how this mandate will work, it clearly still puts Catholic employers in the position of being forced to violate our consciences and the teachings of our church.

In addition, our government has yet to address the fact that a great number of Catholic entities are self-insured, including our own Diocese of Erie. How are we supposed to shift costs? How can the accommodation be considered any kind of resolution?

Surely our government can find a way to allow employers to follow their consciences and live in freedom. I call upon President Obama and Congress to create a simple, straightforward agreement that unquestionably permits religious organizations -- and in this case, particularly the self-insured -- to live out their beliefs. If we do not secure this right, what is to stop the government from imposing additional mandates that further erode the liberties upon which this country has thrived for centuries? Thankfully, Americans from a host of denominations recognize the danger we face and are standing with us in the fight to preserve our First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

The bishops of the United States are considering their options carefully and will likely seek the intervention of the courts to protect our religious liberty and rights. In addition, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (HR 1179 and S 1467), which ensures that the rights of conscience of all participants in our nation's health-care system will be respected, is already before Congress. I urge all people of good will who want to ensure the integrity of their own precious liberties to visit the website of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference at www.pacatholic.org and to make their voices heard through the Pennsylvania Catholic Advocacy Network.

It was George Washington who said that the consciences of all "should be treated with delicacy and tenderness." Let us work toward his "wish and desire that the laws may always be extensively accommodated to them."
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Sun 4 Mar, 2012 10:11 pm
I am inspired to write "The Parable of the Civil Rights Act." Churches often claim that they were instrumental in promoting civil rights. Imagine the outcry if church affiliated employers began discriminating against women in violation of the Act's prohibition on gender discrimination.

(Maybe we do not need to "imagine" since Church affiliated employers are actually practicing such discrimination in the area of insurance coverage for women's health.)
Mon 5 Mar, 2012 01:39 pm
It's unclear whether the new ruling will include free vasectomies and free condoms for men (while providing free sterilization and birth control for women), but Adam Sonfield of the Guttmacher Institute says that it must since to not do so would raise issues of discrimination against men.
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Tue 17 Apr, 2012 08:48 am
Bishops say Catholics must disobey unjust laws
(Associated Press, April 15, 2012)

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops are calling for a national campaign in defense of religious liberty, and urged resistance to laws that church officials consider unjust.

In a new 12-page document that quotes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the bishops said priests, laypeople, public figures and others must be involved in the effort to change recent state and federal laws that church leaders believe violate religious freedom.

“We address an urgent summons to our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad,” the bishops wrote in their April 12 statement.

The highest-profile clash has been over the mandate in the Obama administration’s health care overhaul that most employers cover birth control costs for workers. The White House has offered a compromise for church-affiliated groups such as hospitals and universities, but the bishops said the changes haven’t gone far enough.

Critics within and outside the church have accused the bishops of pressing the issue to remove President Barack Obama from office. But the bishops wrote, “this ought not to be a partisan issue.”

“The Constitution is not for Democrats or Republicans or independents. It is for all of us, and a great nonpartisan effort should be led by our elected representatives to ensure that it remains so,” the bishops wrote.

Several bishops have shut down their adoption and foster care programs where the government would require them to place children with same-sex couples. Church leaders have also been fighting tough immigration laws in Alabama and elsewhere that many religious groups say make it impossible for them to aid illegal immigrants.

Catholic leaders have also protested a decision by federal officials not to renew a church contract for work with sex-trafficking victims. Church officials would not provide the women birth control or abortion services.

The bishops cited a line from King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which the civil rights leader wrote that an unjust law is “out of harmony with the moral law.” The bishops said that no “accommodation” can be sought for such laws. Instead, they must be resisted or repealed.

“If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them,” the bishops wrote.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops plans a national “Fortnight for Freedom” from June 21 to July 4 that will include prayer and study about religious liberty.
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Tue 17 Apr, 2012 08:53 am
Judging from the surveys, the only people that are going to be fighting the laws are the bishops. Everyone else has already joined their enemy. Wow, what a fearsome army, all 195 or whatever it is of doddering old men. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Tue 17 Apr, 2012 08:54 am
Good point. I really don't see most American Catholics violating secular laws.
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Tue 17 Apr, 2012 10:53 am
Catholic bishops against the common good
(By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN, April 16, 2012)

The U.S. Catholic bishops who claim, increasingly incredibly, to speak on behalf of American Catholics hit a new low last week when they released a self-serving statement called "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty." As this title intimates, the supposed subject is religious liberty, but the real matter at hand is contraception and (for those who have ears to hear) the rapidly eroding moral authority of U.S. priests and bishops.

On Easter Sunday, Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CBS that the controversial Health and Human Services contraception rule represents a "radical intrusion" of government into "the internal life of the Church." On Thursday, 15 of his fellow Catholic clerics (all male) took another sloshy step into the muck and mire of the politics of fear.

In "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty" there is talk of religious liberty as the "first freedom" and a tip of the cap to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. But first and foremost there is anxiety. "Our freedoms are threatened," these clerics cry. "Religious liberty is under attack."

But what freedoms are these clerics being denied? The freedom to say Mass? To pray the Rosary? No and no. The U.S. government is not forcing celibate priests to have sex, or to condone condoms. The freedom these clerics are being denied is the freedom to ignore the laws of the land in which they live.

When I first heard of the HHS rule requiring all employers to pay for birth control for their employees, I thought it should include, on First Amendment grounds, an exemption for Catholic churches. And in fact it did.

Moreover, when Catholic bishops and priests opposed the contraception mandate, HHS modified its rule, exempting not only Catholic churches but also Catholic-affiliated hospitals, universities, and social service agencies. (For these organizations, employees would receive contraceptive coverage from insurance companies separately from the policies purchased by their employers).

Once the Obama administration presented this compromise, I thought Catholic clerics would withdraw their objections. I was wrong. Instead they acted like political hacks rather than spiritual authorities, doubling down on the invective and serving up to the American public an even deeper draught of petty partisanship.

The bishops refer repeatedly in their statement to "civil society." But think for a moment of the sort of "civil society" we would have if religious people were exempt from any law they deemed "unjust" for religious reasons.

Mormon employers who object to same-sex marriages could deny life insurance benefits to same-sex couples.

Jehovah's Witnesses who object to blood transfusions could deny health care coverage for blood transfusions.

Christian Scientists who oppose the use of conventional medicine could refuse to cover their employees for anything other than Christian Science treatments.

And Roman Catholics could demand (as the bishops do in this statement) state financing for foster care programs that refuse to place foster children with same-sex parents.

As the Roman Catholic Church has taught for millennia, human beings are not isolated atoms. We live together in society, and we come together to pass laws to make our societies function. Virtually every law is coercive, and care must be taken not to violate the religious liberties of individual citizens. But care must also be taken to preserve the common good.

In their statement, Catholic bishops accused American political leaders of launching "an attack on civil society." They also attempted to cloak themselves in the mantle of Dr. King. But theirs is a vision of an uncivil society, and their cause has nothing to do with the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement succeeded because its cause was just, and because its leaders were able to mobilize millions of Americans to bring an end to the injustice of segregation. The effort by male Roman Catholic leaders to deny contraception coverage to female employees who want it does not bear even a passing resemblance to that cause. And even the bishops behind this so-called "movement" must admit that it is failing to mobilize even American Catholics themselves.

At least since the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, Catholics worldwide have been asking, "Who is the Roman Catholic Church?" Is it the hierarchy--a collection of priests, bishops, and cardinals overseen by a pope? Or is it the "People of God" in the pews whom these leaders are ordained to serve?

In recent years, this question has jumped by necessity from the realm of Catholic theology into the rough and tumble of American politics. Does American Catholicism oppose contraception? It depends on who speaks for the Church. The 98% of American Catholic women who have used contraception? Or the 15 male clerics who issued this statement?

According to "Catholics for Choice," which has published a rejoinder to "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," "The bishops have failed to convince Catholics in the pews to follow their prohibitions on contraception. Now, they want the government to grant them the legal right to require each of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to set aside our own guaranteed freedom from government-sanctioned religious interference in our lives."

The bishops' statement gives lip service to "civil society" and the "common good," but what these 15 clerics are trying to do here is destructive of both. To participate in civil society is to get your way sometimes and not others. To seek the common good is to sacrifice your own interests at times to those of others.

I will admit that the HHS contraception rule does ask these Catholic clerics to sacrifice something. But what is this sacrifice? Simply to allow the women who work for their organizations to be offered contraceptive coverage by their insurers. To refuse this sacrifice is not to uphold civil society. It is to refuse to participate in it.

Toward the end of their statement, the 15 bishops who signed this statement called on every U.S. Catholic to join in a "great national campaign" on behalf of religious liberty. More specifically, they called for a "Fortnight for Freedom" concluding with the Fourth of July when U.S. dioceses can celebrate both religious liberty and martyrs who have died for the Catholic cause.

As Independence Day approaches, I have a prediction. I predict that rank-and-file American Catholics will ignore this call. They will see that the issue at hand has more to do with women's health than with religious liberty. And in the spirit of Vatican II, which referred to the church as the "People of God," they will refuse to allow these 15 men to speak for them. Whatever moral capital U.S. bishops have in the wake of the sex abuse scandal that rocked the nation for decades will be insufficient to win over lay Catholics to what has been for at least a half a century a lost cause.

These 15 clerics write that American Catholics "must have the courage not to obey" unjust laws. I think the courage called for today is something else--the courage not to obey those who no longer speak for them.
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Thu 19 Apr, 2012 01:30 pm
Anti-Defamation League takes issue with bishop's remarks
( MANYA A. BRACHEAR, Chicago Tribune, April 18, 2012)

A homily delivered Sunday by Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky in Peoria, Ill., has angered the Anti-Defamation League, a watchdog for anti-Semitism.

In the homily at in St. Mary's Cathedral, Jenky took aim at health care policies proposed by the Obama administration, which have been a source of consternation for Catholic bishops since they were announced earlier this year. He included President Barack Obama's policies in a litany of government challenges the Catholic Church has overcome in previous centuries.

"Remember that in past history other governments have tried to force Christians to huddle and hide only within the confines of their churches like the first disciples locked up in the Upper Room," he said. "In the late 19th century, Bismarck waged his 'Kulturkampf,' a Culture War, against the Roman Catholic Church, closing down every Catholic school and hospital, convent and monastery in Imperial Germany.

"Clemenceau, nicknamed 'the priest eater,' tried the same thing in France in the first decade of the 20th century. Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and health care. In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama - with his radical, pro abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path."

On Wednesday, Lonnie Nasatir, the regional director of Chicago's Anti-Defamation League, demanded an apology from Jenky, calling his remarks "outrageous, offensive and completely over the top."

"Clearly, Bishop Jenky needs a history lesson," Nasatir said. "There are few, if any, parallels in history to the religious intolerance and anti-Semitism fostered in society by Stalin, and especially Hitler, who under his regime perpetuated the open persecution and ultimate genocide of Jews, Catholics and many other minorities," Nasatir said. "The 6 million Jews and millions of others who perished in the Holocaust should not have their deaths at the hands of Hitler trivialized by such offensive words."

A spokeswoman for the Peoria diocese could not be reached for comment. The Jewish observance of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, starts at sundown Wednesday.
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Mon 21 May, 2012 11:11 am
The Catholic anti-Obama election year roll-out continues? Super-lawsuit filed by 43 dioceses, universities, and Our Sunday Visitor
(Bryan Cones, Opinion Essay, U.S. Catholic Magazine, May 21, 2012)

Back in the heady days of 2010 and the health-care reform debate, I wondered if there was a "Monday morning conference call" during which Catholic GOP activists got together to work out how to scuttle any reform deal. (Anyone remember Bart Stupak? Didn't think so.) I wondered if I hit a nerve when a prominent member of the conservative Catholic political class emailed me the next day.

As this current election year heats up, I find myself wondering the same thing about that conference call, as first Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio bravely canceled its student health insurance plan over "religious liberty" fears--better to have them uninsured than trouble your conscience--and today Our Sunday Visitor, along with the University of Notre Dame, trumpets joining a massive federal lawsuit simultaneously filed in 12 jurisdictions against the HHS "contraceptive mandate."

Two major announcements in two weeks--and this one accompanied by the communications apparatus of one of the country's largest Catholic publishers, whose head, Greg Erlandson, is also president of the Catholic Press Association. (OSV also has a nice selection of "religious liberty products.") This is all speculation, of course--and I have no direct knowledge that there is a coordinated conservative Catholic campaign to defeat President Obama in November. But if I was planning one, I don't think I could have done it any better.

Granted, the administration gave its Catholic opponents some red meat with that mandate, but since HHS has totally backpedaled since the outcry, I hardly see the point in spending so much money--and forcing the government to spend so much taxpayer money--to oppose a regulation that may or may not go into effect, especially given the Affordable Care Act's almost certain destruction by the Supreme Court.

Then again, I have argued--and I am fairly certain that I am right about this--is that every U.S. diocese, parish, and Catholic grammar and high school; some universities, including Steubenville; and most (if not all) Catholic publishers, including OSV and U.S. Catholic, would have been covered under the very first version of the religious exemption from the mandate, much less all the subsequent revisions.

Notre Dame President John Jenkins seems more circumspect about the lawsuit than Our Sunday Visitor, but whatever the intentions of either organization, I fear this further insertion of Catholicism in its various expressions into this election year is bad for the church. Most Americans--including most Catholics--do not like this kind of direct mixture of religion and politics, and I see no reason to pursue this matter in the courts now given the uncertainty surrounding both the reform as a whole and the mandate. If you're going to get what you want without all the legal drama, why instigate the legal drama?
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Wed 13 Jun, 2012 11:49 am
Are Catholic bishops abandoning nonpartisanship in contraception battle?
(By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2012)

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops have long prided themselves on being political without being partisan, throwing themselves into the scrum of public affairs without aligning themselves with one party or the other.

Now, some Catholics are beginning to wonder out loud whether the bishops have abandoned their historic nonpartisanship — or, at least, are at risk of being seen that way — as they press forward with a vigorous campaign against contraception provisions in President Obama's healthcare plan.

Led by the indomitable Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the bishops are arriving in Atlanta for their annual spring meeting this week determined to throw the spotlight on what they perceive as an assault by the Obama administration on religious liberty.

In that fight, the bishops have the support not just of many Catholics but of evangelical Christians and others on the conservative side of the religious and political spectrum — including Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger who has repeatedly portrayed Obama as an enemy of religious freedom.

Perhaps because of that, some liberal and moderate Catholics are uncomfortable with what they see as an inappropriate insertion of the church into a hot-button political issue at the outset of a presidential campaign.

"I think the real danger bishops need to confront is getting this dragged through the political mud just a few months before an election," said John Gehring, the Catholic outreach coordinator for Faith in Public Life, a liberal faith-based advocacy group. "I think some of the alarmist rhetoric that some church leaders are using gives the impression that some bishops are quite happy making this part of a Republican campaign."

Gehring said there was a risk that the bishops could come to be seen as "the Republican Party at prayer" — which, he stressed, he does not believe is the case.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore insisted to the National Catholic Reporter last week that there was nothing partisan about the church's campaign. "We're not trying to throw an election," he said. "We're simply trying to defend fundamental freedoms."

In doing so, however, the bishops have used unusually strong language. Dolan said the White House was "strangling" the church. The bishop of Peoria, Ill., compared what Obama had done to the treatment of churches by Hitler and Stalin.

Complicating matters for the bishops has been the timing of their campaign, which coincides with a Vatican crackdown on American nuns for doctrinal disobedience and with deliberations in the Philadelphia trial of a high-ranking Catholic cleric accused of covering up sexual abuse of children by priests.

"It's a very fragile time," said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University who specializes in religion and politics. The bishops, he said, have already lost some of their moral authority as a result of the sex abuse scandal, and risk being seen as antagonists of the nuns, who are appreciated by many Catholics for devoting themselves to the poor and powerless.

Against that distracting backdrop, the bishops are launching what they call a "Fortnight for Freedom," a two-week period from June 21 to July 4 dedicated to prayer, study and public action against the contraception provisions in the healthcare bill, which require insurers to offer free contraception to most women, including some who work for Catholic-affiliated institutions (but not churches).

The Department of Health and Human Services initially proposed requiring that most employers, including Catholic hospitals and schools, include contraceptive services in employee healthcare plans. After an outcry, the administration announced a compromise — dismissed as meaningless by the bishops — that put the onus on the insurance companies, not the employers.

In addition to the Fortnight observance, the bishops also are using their pulpits to let the Catholic faithful know that they believe the administration has crossed a line. Dolan has even written a brief e-book, scheduled for publication later this month, in which he lays out an intellectual argument for "the Gospel of life." More than 40 Catholic organizations have sued the federal government.

Polls suggest that Obama may be paying a price among Catholic voters, who formed a key part of his electoral support in 2008. A recent Gallup poll showed Obama and Romney in a virtual tie among Catholics.

"What we are seeing is that Catholics in this country are increasingly dissatisfied with Barack Obama because they don't like the way he's carrying out the mandate," said Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with the Catholic Assn., a new group that describes itself as a traditional Catholic voice in the public square.

McGuire defends the bishops from charges of partisanship, saying: "I don't think the bishops are trying to influence the campaign.... I mean, the bishops are not going to get behind one political candidate or another. They never have and never will."

Tim Byrnes, a political science professor at Colgate University whose books include "Catholic Bishops in American Politics," agreed that U.S. bishops had long been seen as above the partisan fray, in part because their agenda had elements that overlapped both parties.

In recent decades, their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage has lined up with the GOP, while opposition to the death penalty and support of immigration reform and the social safety net put them in good stead with Democrats.

However, Byrnes said: "I think it's without doubt that they are in the process of squandering that special position or role in American politics. The danger is that they'll be seen as social conservatives in league with a political party whose views on economic issues are not ones that the bishops share.... That doesn't strike me as a particularly good way of protecting the long-term viability of the church as a participant in American policy debates."
Wed 13 Jun, 2012 02:43 pm
I, as a catholic sure as hell am very disappointed in the bishops attack on the insurance program. Its bs. they have proved themselves to be ultraconservative politicians not worried about the majority of people.
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Thu 21 Jun, 2012 07:27 pm
I just saw this commercial on TV a little while ago.

It is made by the Catholic Association, which has this announcement on their Web site.
Fortnight for Freedom Grassroots Action Plan

June 21 - July 4

Catholics have been asked by our bishops to take action in defense of our religious liberty in the two weeks leading up to the 4th of July — a "Fortnight for Freedom."

This is necessary because the Obama Administration has engaged in a stunning attack on our right to practice our faith, most notably by mandating that virtually all employers, including religious employers like Catholic charities, schools, and hospitals, provide free abortion inducing-drugs, contraception, and sterilization in their health plans.

If the bishops are directly instigating political action, directed against the President, how are they not preaching political messages?

Personally, I felt angry watching that commercial. The religious freedom of Catholics is not being threatened by the government. On the other hand, Catholic institutions--like hospitals and universities--are trying to ram their religious beliefs, about things like contraception, down the throats of the non-Catholic staff members and students at these facilities, and all others the Church employs, including Catholics, who want to to be able to have unrestricted access and choice regarding their health care.

The more I listen to them, the less sympathy I have for their position. Access to health care is not a religious issue, and it shouldn't be turned into a religious issue because some bishop somewhere doesn't like the health care choices a female employee of a Church controlled institution or agency might make. Those the Church employs are entitled to the same sort of health care coverage they would receive anywhere else--without any limitations or restrictions imposed by Church doctrines.
Fri 22 Jun, 2012 08:08 am
Occupy Wall Street is promoting the event on their website.
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Fri 22 Jun, 2012 08:26 am
Well stated.
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Fri 6 Jul, 2012 06:42 pm
Effort to Overturn Contraceptive Mandate Shifts Focus to Bishops’ Advocacy
(By Eliza Newlin Carney, Roll Call, July 5, 2012)

A Catholic-led fight to overturn contraceptive mandates in the health care law has drawn big dollars, large crowds and prominent GOP backing, raising questions about how aggressively Catholic bishops might wade into politics.

A two-week “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops culminated July Fourth with a rally-style celebration that was expected to draw some 4,000 people to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

The two-week campaign, organized on the ground by the Catholic Association, a group of lay Catholics, also featured TV and Web advertising, petitions aimed at Members of Congress and email and text messages to a million Catholics.

Joining in the effort were Conscience Cause, a group launched in April by two prominent Republicans that includes Catholics and non-Catholics, and Catholic Vote, a nonprofit and super PAC that backs presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and aims to spend $5 million or more in this election.

The Catholic bishops have also helped to organize a dozen lawsuits lodged by archdioceses around the country challenging the law’s mandate that health care plans include contraceptive services. Responding to critics, the Obama administration shifted the cost of coverage to insurers and wrote an exception for religious organizations.

But critics say the administration’s definition of a religious organization is too narrow and would force many religious schools, employers and charities to provide services that violate their religious beliefs. All told, 56 plaintiffs have filed 23 lawsuits challenging the Health and Human Services Department mandate, including three Protestant educational institutions.

“We have seen an incredible intensity on this issue,” said Maureen Ferguson, a senior policy adviser at the Catholic Association, which was founded in 2007 but relaunched itself this spring to focus on the contraceptive mandate.

Another new player is Conscience Cause, which promotes religious freedom for all denominations, potentially galvanizing non-Catholics on the issue. The group has gathered 6,000 signatures on a petition aimed at forcing a vote in Congress to rescind the reproductive health mandate.

“We believe that this is the viable option because this is nonpartisan,” said Conscience Cause Executive Director Christen Varley, a former tea party organizer. “It’s a faith issue. It’s a constitutional issue.”

But some argue the campaign is overtly political. Conscience Cause is the brainchild of two prominent Republicans now advising the Romney campaign: former Republican National Committee chairman and Veterans Administration Secretary Jim Nicholson, a major GOP fundraiser who is helping Romney reach veterans and Catholic voters; and Ed Gillespie, another former RNC chairman who sits on the group’s board and is a senior Romney strategist.

Republicans are drawn to the fight over mandates both because they could galvanize Catholics, a key swing voting bloc, and because the issue could resonate with influential Evangelical voters. At one “Fortnight for Freedom” rally last month, Catholic bishops in Kansas fired up a large crowd alongside GOP Gov. Sam Brownback.

“One of the few options now available to repeal the flaw [in the law] is going to be the ballot box,” said Brian Burch, president of Catholic Vote. A Catholic Vote Web video featuring stirring music and patriotic scenes casts the mandate as a violation of civil and religious rights and warns: “Mr. President, You’ve Awakened a Sleeping Giant.”

Burch said Catholic Vote will be active in the presidential and Senate elections and use sophisticated, new microtargeting tools to reach Catholics with Internet ads. Conscience Cause also is doing Internet advertising, Varley said, and is considering voter guides and rallies in key Congressional districts.

The highly politicized campaign has drawn fire from progressive Catholics, watchdog groups and even some bishops. Stockton, Calif., Bishop Stephen E. Blaire told a Catholic newspaper in May that “different groups … are trying to co-opt this and make it into a political issue.”

John Gehring, Catholic program director at the progressive group Faith in Public Life, drew a lengthy rebuttal from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when he challenged the campaign in a memo to reporters.

“It’s kind of a stretch to make the case that this is simply an educational effort, when some bishops seem happy to align with Republican politicians in a national mobilizing campaign against President Obama just a few months before a national election in which Catholics will play a decisive role,” Gehring said in an interview.

In a statement released to the media last month, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, pointed to tax rules that bar charities from partisan politics: “The bishops have been far from even-handed in their political activities. At some point, it may raise questions about compliance with federal tax law, which forbids [charitable] tax-exempt organizations from favoring or opposing candidates for public office.”

The bishops counter that their “Fortnight for Freedom” is about prayer, not politics.

“It’s important to say the struggle we are engaging in here is not a partisan issue,” Baltimore Archbishop William Lori said last month in a conference call with the Catholic Press Association. “We didn’t choose the time. We didn’t choose the place.”
Fri 6 Jul, 2012 06:51 pm
“It’s kind of a stretch to make the case that this is simply an educational effort, when some bishops seem happy to align with Republican politicians in a national mobilizing campaign against President Obama just a few months before a national election in which Catholics will play a decisive role,” Gehring said in an interview.

Good observation about the rhetoric coming from Catholic bishops.
Fri 6 Jul, 2012 07:20 pm
I have comprehension deficit, since most people who are presently catholic don't agree with the hierarchy.
Sat 7 Jul, 2012 02:40 am
It all started with the untimely death of John Paul I. That's a conspiracy theory and a half, and is a main theme in Godfather 3.
Sat 7 Jul, 2012 12:11 pm
You are going to take some movie makers word about history? The more they distort history the more money they make. Its like believing anything a politician says!

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